When Charles St. Clair arrived in Arizona in 1990, to begin a faculty position with the School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies at ASU West in Glendale, the local culture was shifting.
Although the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday was observed nationally for the first time in 1986, Arizonans four years later voted against the creation of the holiday on a state level. Boycotts by major artists would cost the state millions in possible investments, and the state became the center of a national conversation about the holiday honoring the American civil rights icon.
Mr. St. Clair was then on at staff at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and was interviewing for the position at ASU West, 4701 W. Thunderbird Road, in Glendale. A colleague who was instituting the new interdisciplinary arts and performance program on the west campus knew Mr. St. Clair would be perfect for the position, but had to ask why he wanted to come to Arizona, which had just voted against an MLK holiday.
“If I come here, we will change that,” he recalled saying, on Jan. 5.
Two years later, Arizona voters went back to the polls and this time approved a measure to create the holiday. MLK Day was first marked in Arizona on the third Monday in January -- like the national holiday -- in 1993.
While Mr. St. Clair concedes that he himself had little to do with the ballot initiative at the time that established the holiday, he knew he would be part of the “change” of hearts, minds and attitudes through education. By 1991, he was instrumental in establishing the March on West -- a program that celebrates Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963, which advocated for the civil and economic rights of African Americans and culminated at the Lincoln Memorial with his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
This month, on Tuesday, Jan. 19, marks the 30th anniversary of the March on West, as thousands of students from across the country are expected to participate virtually in the Glendale event. As always, the celebration will include Mr. St. Clair reading the entirety of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“It’s a very exciting time for us,” he said. “We look forward to being able to reach out and do our part in educating the community and certainly educating students in hopes that one day one of those students will want to lead us.”
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Coronavirus precautions will keep the event from one of its mainstay features. Typically, as many as 1,500 students gather at the ASU West gate and hold signs containing personal messages, as the crowd reenacts the famous March on Washington by walking the Glendale campus to the Kiva Lecture Hall, which features a reflecting pool that is smaller but similar to the one on the National Mall in Washington D.C.
Safety guidelines -- including social distancing and face coverings -- will be in effect for other limited in-person event features, but even a pandemic wasn’t going to cancel the event, Mr. St. Clair said. This January will mark the first MLK Day since the 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Given 2020 and all of the events of 2020, knowing that all of the parameters of what’s happening in our society, we had to move forward. The march had to go on,” Mr. St. Clair said. “We had to keep moving forward and not turn back, as Martin says. We cannot turn back. We can’t let anything stop us from moving forward, educating our youth, opening up the minds of those, especially with all that’s happened. We just thought it was really important.”
Even a virtual presentation of March on West proved difficult. With hundreds of schools across Arizona and the country typically participating online even before the pandemic, this time around many schools are not hosting in-person learning at the moment.
Organizers, though, figured it out and a network of support will make the ceremony available online. Las Brisas Elementary, 5805 W. Alameda Road, Glendale, is among the Valley schools taking part.
“Over the years we have been inviting thousands of junior high school and sixth- and seventh-grade students to our campus to be educated on the civil rights movement and the March on Washington,” Mr. St. Clair added.
The day begins at 10 a.m. with the traditional ringing of a bell to open proceedings, and runs through 11 a.m. Glendale resident James “Rambo” Smith, aka the Singing Fireman, will sing the National Anthem.
“How far have we come since 1963? We’re just around the corner. We may have turned the corner and we may have taken some steps,” Mr. St. Clair reflected, “but we’ve also taken some steps backwards. As with any movement or with any progress, there’s always going to be steps forward or steps back. To reunite and move forward, that is my dream and my hope.”
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